Scout isn’t even out of beta, but it’s already having a positive impact on lawmaking. You can see how in this email that Patrice McDermott of OpenTheGovernment.org sent to the FOI-L listserv yesterday:
This morning, the Senate approved an amendment from Senator Leahy that preserves FOIA in the FDA Safety and Innovation Act. The original language in the S.3187, Section 708 would have allowed the FDA to deny the public access to information relating to drugs obtained from a federal, state, local, or foreign government agency, if the agency has requested that the information be kept confidential. Senator Leahy’s amendment allows the FDA to obtain and protect drug inspection and investigation information from foreign governments under clear guidelines and with delimited protection time.
The original language was opposed in a letter by the openness and accountability community. Thanks to the hard work of Senator Leahy and his staff, and the collaboration of the HELP Committee leadership, the request from FDA for a carte blanche to withhold information from the public and Congress was denied. At the same time, the legitimate concerns regarding foreign governments were appropriately addressed.
Thanks to our colleagues in the openness and accountability community for your hard work on this.
Patrice’s colleague Amy Bennett sent a follow-up email that explained exactly how Scout was a part of this:
[W]e’d be remiss if we didn’t give credit to the Sunlight Foundation’s latest legislative language tool, Scout (http://scout.sunlightfoundation.com/), for alerting us to the existence of the original provision. You can use the tool to set up email alerts for key phrases or follow a particular bill. It covers Congress, regulations across the whole executive branch, and legislation in all 50 states.
We use Scout to get updates anytime Congress is considering expanding what can be withheld under the federal FOIA by setting up an alert that searches bills in Congress for the term “552 (b)” (thanks to a reform written into law last year, all new b3 statutes must cite FOIA – USC 552).
Obviously, an email alert can only go so far. It took the work of Patrice and Amy, like-minded organizations like Public Citizen, and members of Sen. Leahy’s staff to catch this problematic provision and correct it.
But that good work was made possible by the tip-off that Scout provided. It’s a great example of technology lowering barriers to participation in the democratic process, which ultimately results in better governance — and that idea is exactly why Sunlight exists.